What Are Stimulants? - Definition, Types & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Are Stimulants?
  • 1:09 Medical Uses
  • 2:12 Types
  • 6:55 Important Facts
  • 7:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

In this lesson, we will learn all about the class of drugs known as stimulants. Explore the different kinds of stimulants, how they are used in the medical field, and how they influence the central nervous system.

What Are Stimulants?

Think about what happens in the morning after you've consumed your first cup of coffee. You feel an increase in energy, alertness, and your ability to focus. And what happens on mornings when you skip that cup of coffee? You likely feel more tired or maybe find it harder to concentrate. This is because coffee contains caffeine, which is a stimulant drug. Some stimulants, like coffee, are used every day by people who want to stay awake or increase their alertness. While stimulants can be used safely, they can be dangerous if not taken correctly. Some stimulants are available only through prescription, and others are illegal. Let's discuss stimulants in more detail.

Stimulants are drugs that 'stimulate' the central nervous system. In other words, they increase the activity in your brain. Though each stimulant has unique effects, all stimulants increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. By increasing the electrical activity in your brain, stimulants cause you to be more alert, decrease fatigue, and prolong physical activity. Stimulants can also improve your mood and increase self-confidence. For these reasons, stimulants are also referred to as 'uppers.'

Medical Uses for Stimulants

You've probably taken stimulant medication in the past without realizing it. For example, if you have ever taken extra strength Excedrin, you have taken a stimulant. Below are other examples of medical uses for stimulants:

  • Caffeine is often added to painkillers in order to make them more effective.
  • Because of their ability to improve mood and self-confidence, doctors prescribe stimulants in combination with anti-depressants to treat depression.
  • Stimulants are effective in treating cognitive disturbances in HIV patients and in cancer patients going through cranial irradiation.
  • Some stimulant drugs, such as Adderall and Concerta, are useful in controlling the impulsive behaviors, inattentiveness, and hyperactivity that are associated attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Stimulants are used to help people with narcolepsy stay awake.
  • Because stimulants relax the bronchial muscles, almost all asthma medications contain stimulants.
  • Stimulants are also found in both prescription and non-prescription diet pills due to their appetite-reduction abilities.

Types of Stimulants

Let's examine some of the more common types of stimulants, including caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamines.

Caffeine is perhaps the most widely used stimulant in the world. Coffee, tea, chocolate, soda, candy, and energy drinks all contain caffeine. Small amounts of caffeine help you stay awake and increase alertness, but only for a short amount of time. Large amounts of caffeine can cause sleep interruptions, restlessness, and cardiac arrest. Caffeine is a diuretic, which means that it can cause you to use the bathroom more frequently. Caffeine is also linked to a decreased risk in certain cancers. Some medications that contain caffeine are:

  • Vivarin: used to restore alertness and decrease fatigue
  • Diurex Maximum Relief Water Caps: decreases the bloating and swelling associated with menstrual cycles
  • Excedrin: used for pain relief

You probably know that nicotine is a natural ingredient found in tobacco, but did you know that nicotine is a stimulant? In terms of use and popularity, nicotine is not far behind caffeine. It is estimated that over 46 million adults in the U.S. smoke cigarettes. Nicotine is regarded as one of the most addictive drugs in the world. Similar to caffeine, nicotine improves alertness and helps you stay awake when taken in small amounts. Unlike caffeine, nicotine is both a stimulant and a relaxant.

At low doses, the effects of nicotine are similar to most stimulants. It improves memory and concentration. Nicotine also decreases your appetite and increases metabolism, which is why many smokers report losing weight. At higher doses, nicotine tends to act more like a relaxant. Large amounts of nicotine give a calming effect, reduce pain, and cause respiratory paralysis. Although rarely used in medicine, nicotine is used in products that are designed to help people stop smoking, such as gum, patches, nasal sprays, and lozenges.

Cocaine is a highly addictive illegal drug that is created from the leaves of the coca plant. However, cocaine wasn't always illegal. It was even used as an ingredient in Coca-Cola from its development in 1886 until 1929. When used in small amounts, cocaine causes intense feelings of pleasure (euphoria) that last anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. It increases confidence and makes users more talkative. It also increases energy and alertness while decreasing appetite and fatigue.

In large amounts, cocaine can lead to an intense high, bizarre or erratic behavior, restlessness, anxiety, and paranoia. Long-term cocaine use can have severe effects on your heart, respiratory system, nervous system, and digestion. This includes heart attacks, respiratory failure, strokes, seizures, and coma. Cocaine is potentially lethal and can kill you the first time you try it, even if you don't overdose.

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